Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Valerie Luna Serrels
We enter this week’s story through a blind spot. The people who historically have awakened to and connected to God, find themselves unable to see, disconnected from God, one another, and the land. This blind spot invites us to reflect on the ways in which we too are unaware and disconnected. Unaware of which world’s code of conduct we abide. What religion we practice.
During a time of increased trade and prosperity for the people of Israel in the 8th century BC, and the creation of an upper class, many who benefited from the new class structure moved away from the land toward the urban center. Consequently, this move was accompanied by practices normally attributed to their foreign neighbors – namely, oppressive debt and exploitation of workers and the lower class. The God of the children of Israel, who set apart the people to live out a different kind of story, commanded them in the law of charity, forbearance, and jubilee in economic matters. The greed and oppression that now characterize even their fasting, their nation’s most sacred ritual, echo the characteristics of a religion of empire.
In Empire Baptized, Wes Howard-Brook refers to these two worlds in the context of what a society governed by YHWH would look like, with Jesus “proclaiming the reign of God in accordance with the pattern of the ‘religion of creation’ while denouncing the counterfeit ‘religion of empire’.”
A religion of creation is rooted in the marrow-deep connection to self, other, the natural world, and therefore to God. Howard-Brook notes that in a religion of creation the place of sacred encounter is with the Earth (mountains, rivers, wilderness), table fellowship and human intimacy. Flowing out of this rootedness, the basic social and economic structures are egalitarian, based on the idea of kinship, gift, and barter. Diametrically opposed, a religion of empire finds sacred encounter in the temple and the basic social and economic structures are hierarchical patronage, money, and debt.
Isaiah calls out the counterfeit, “…on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.” This reference to exploiting workers was based on the translated word “labours,” according to the Benson commentary the Hebrew word actually means your griefs, namely, things that are so grievous to others, through either hard labor required of servants above their strength, or through debt, “either with usury or with cruelty when the general law of charity, or God’s particular law, enjoined the release, or, at least, the forbearance of them.” The people of Israel lost their identity. And their religion.
Isaiah names the truth as he sees it: surface-deep perfunctory observance with no practice of the charity and compassion that defines who they are. Naming a fast, going through the motions, means nothing if that acknowledgment is not connected to something deeper, evidenced by repentance, justice and love. They skim the surface and call it the center. And calling a fast a fast, divorced from its origin and purpose, doesn’t make it so. In fact, calling a fast a fast but projecting the grief and suffering required of one’s own soul onto those already suffering, is the opposite of a fast. An Anti-fast. #AlternativeFacts.
There’s soul work required of the Jews, and of us, to see our misplaced loyalties and values, to notice the ways that the religion of empire influences our worldview and behavior. The exploitation and “griefing” of laborers, or peasants (literally “people of the land”), is the norm for a religion of empire, and it insidiously seeps over into the religion of creation, our original story. In the US, we this same dynamic formed our “Christian” nation and in our modern world with the exploitation of native peoples, black and brown peoples – those who are also traditionally associated with connectedness to the land, and of the Earth herself.
This is why we need the prophets – to call us back to ourselves, to realign ourselves with God and the land, leading to the justice and love upon which our religion is based. It’s why God called for a fast, a Day of Atonement, a seeking out the depths of one’s soul and suffering the darkness and disconnect there. It’s only then that repentance is possible, and the subsequent offering of compassionate service to the world. Isaiah points out the behaviors consistent with true fasting – feeding, sheltering, clothing, loosening, and freeing. And this is done in symbiotic relationship with the created world, as part of the well-watered garden.
The disconnect for the people of Israel, and for all people who live in a civilization associated with empire, is located in the soul, or in the lack of soul development. To understand this, we look to their (and our own) socio-economic context, of course, but I wonder if we can also understand this disconnect due to our lost identity as people of the land, as in the days of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The reconnection, therefore, the realignment, the religion, would be to reconnect ourselves back to the land and the watersheds in which we live.
Without this, the scorched earth policies of empire reign, and all is exploited little by little. But when we know ourselves as connected within our own soul, with our soil and water, and all the others, both human and non, with whom we share our lives, we will be “like a spring whose waters never fail.” During a time of the American great disruption, perhaps we are likewise called to a Day of Atonement. To hold our own grief and suffering for the exploitation committed by our people, and out of that, loose the chains of injustice. This urgent and unordinary season calls us to repentance, to re-examine who we say we are and what religion we practice.
“Shout it aloud! Do not hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet!” This is serious business.
Valerie Luna Serrels, Shenandoah Valley Church of the Wild, VA Located in the “Warrior Path” or “Great Road” corridor of travel, connection and conflict for many Native American tribes; Territory of the vanished Senedo tribe. A member of the Wild Church Network, www.wildchurchnetwork.com